Jonathan Kraft makes uneasy Bill Belichick compliment: ‘machine learning’

Jonathan Kraft makes uneasy Bill Belichick compliment: ‘machine learning’

BOSTON, Mass. — Football isn’t exactly known for leading the way in the sports analytics world, but Patriots president Jonathan Kraft says that behind Bill Belichick’s brooding stares and curt responses is the coach’s own version of “machine learning.”

“I think if you wanna use a football coach like Bill Belichick who’s coached football for 40 years, you might not call it data, but he’s got a steel trap for a mind,” Kraft said at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday. “Every instance of everything he’s ever seen — he won’t call it data, and he won’t call it machine learning, but his brain is a machine and it’s machine learning. So you can call it old-school coaching — Bill probably wouldn’t like it called machine learning, but that’s effectively what it is.”

Last season, Belichick, 67, told reporters that analytics weren’t his “thing,” and he puts “less than zero” stock in it when it comes to decision-making.

“You could take those advanced websites and metric them wherever you want,” Belichick said in 2016. “I don’t know. I have no idea. I’ve never looked at one. I don’t even care to look at one. I don’t care what they say … All the metric pages and all of that, I mean I have no idea. You’d need to ask that to a smarter coach than me.”

The annual Sloan Conference hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tackles advancements and issues within the sports analytics industry. Kraft spoke alongside commissioner Don Garber at a panel discussing Major League Soccer’s growth success story.

Whether Belichick actively uses advanced analytics or not, Kraft emphasized that it would be a folly to ignore the industry’s advancements outright.

Jonathan Kraft and Robert Kraft
Jonathan Kraft and Robert KraftIcon Sportswire via Getty Images

“I think that data in any business, with anything you’re doing should be a part of the decision-making tools,” Kraft said. “If you’re not open to understanding what’s out there, then you’re putting your team at a competitive disadvantage.”

Jonathan Kraft co-owns MLS’ New England Revolution with his father, Robert Kraft, who was also in attendance at the annual sports technology summit here. The younger Kraft spoke of the disparities in the ways the two sports approach and use data.

“On the football side of the house, data doesn’t get used as much [as in soccer] in charting the play-by-play stuff. I know people talk about it all the time, it still really doesn’t,” Jonathan Kraft said. “You might look at certain tendencies and other things and probabilities around certain decision tools, but I would say that in football it’s one of a number of ingredients that go into a gameplan, whereas in soccer now, for coaches who believe in it, I think it might even be the primary — one of the two or three primary drivers.”

Kraft says that unlike the Patriots, the Revolution has always been on the cutting-edge of analytics.

“On the soccer side of the house, we hired our first data analyst over a decade ago. I think we might have been the first team in the league to have one,” he said. “We’re tracking every player’s movement on the field, how passes are made, how teams perform in the different thirds, et cetera.”

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